1. Building the dream on the side
Miriam Haniffa, founder of PALM hotel in Sri Lanka.
‘I was working in the very male-dominated industry of banking, running a financial technology company. I loved my job but always wanted something more – my husband Laurie and I used to always joke about owning a bamboo hut by the beach. When our first daughter came along we thought, “Why don’t we actually do that?”
‘My father is Sri Lankan and I’d been going there since I was four. As a foreigner, it can be difficult to own businesses and land in Sri Lanka, but it was made easier by me being half Sri Lankan. We managed to buy a four-acre plot of land next to a coconut plantation to start our dream hotel project. We came back to London to work full time for two more years, and our second daughter came along. Between the job, the kids and designs for the hotel, it was a difficult period. I wasn’t employed in a junior role where I could just cruise and it didn’t feel fair to not be fully invested in the business that was paying me. Meanwhile, we also had to redesign the hotel because of budget constraints.
‘Working on a dream project – which was tangible, creative, and brought me closer to people – was something I always looked forward to. It was nice to step away from the corporate world, but it was the opposite of having a better work-life balance.
‘We sold our flats in London, and everything happened very quickly after that. On the Monday, I finished my job; from Tuesday to Thursday we had packers in the flat; and on Friday we handed over keys. And we did all of that with a three-year-old and a one-year-old. Seeing your whole life in a shipping container is interesting – we have all the same furniture as before, but now on a tropical island.’
2. The step-by-step approach
Sophie Harvey, founder of pitta chip brand Soffles.
‘I started it as a hobby, just for fun. I heard about making pitta chips, and one day I tried making them for a few friends, and then I began taking them to art openings and parties. I was working at an auction house – and it was just a fun home art project, creating a brand and stencilling bags up. I spent a long time doing it on a really small scale, making them at home in my kitchen. Everyone really liked them and I was making more and more, so then I began thinking: how do I get these in my local pub? I realised I needed to get them in sealable bags with a proper name and design and pack them properly.
‘That was the first step in my mind – the moment it went from being just some snacks and something I made when people came over to, “Right, let’s make this Soffles brand.” As soon as I got the bags printed – a proper design that was a real product – then I knew it was something. As the pubs were giving me great feedback – and the orders were getting bigger and bigger – I naturally realised I wanted to do more with it.
‘I found a nut factory near where I live and they let me set up my production line. Suddenly the scale of it became much larger. That was the moment when I thought: I have to stop my job and work freelance.” It was an easy decision to make because I knew I could always go back [to working at an art gallery]. I wasn’t completely stopping my income – it wasn’t like I was cutting myself off from this big career. I never felt worried because it was already a business before I left my job.’
3. Slowly but surely
Louise Markey, founder of womenswear brand LF Markey
Sydney-born, London-based fashion designer Louise Markey wanted to work for herself for as long as she can remember. ‘I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know what industry it would be in,’ she says. ‘The entrepreneurial part was non-negotiable, though – for some reason, I knew a nine to five wasn’t for me.’
Markey moved from Australia to the UK back in 2002, with her sights set on a career in fashion. Following a master’s degree from Central Saint Martins, a hotbed for future fashion designers, she found her feet at Burberry, before eventually deciding to do her own thing. In 2008, she launched her eponymous brand LF Markey – now known for its bright, bold colours, boiler suits and utilitarian vibe – but it was something of a soft launch.
She didn’t start working on it full time until 2013. ‘Prior to that,’ she says, ‘it was basically a side hobby job. I did it on my own for many years. Once I launched it properly in 2013, I worked in a studio completely by myself for five years. I was also still freelancing that entire time.’ She then hired her first full-time staff member.
Reflecting on her experience getting the company off the ground, Markey advises would-be business owners to think hard about both their idea and the operational side of things. ‘Your idea has to be original, but there’s definitely room for that to evolve as you go on to see what sells and change things a little bit,’ she says. ‘I don’t think you need to start with a bulletproof, unique idea because that can be really stifling. But the logistical and financial side has to be completely perfect from day one or you’ll fail.’
This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.